Finance Friday: Do You Shop Your Ethics?

Recently I was having a perfectly lovely conversation about eyeglasses that ended on a weird note about ethics and money. I was at the largest conference in my field (the history of women), where I gave a paper and tried not to fangirl over historians I deeply admire. I was there by myself—no cadre of buddies—and spent one evening chatting with friends of a friend, which was when this conversation came up.

Class Stratification in Full-Time Academia

Academia (the phrase refers to all colleges and universities, collectively) is a funny place. A chunk of its denizens are people like me, who—through a combination of hard work and good luck—overcame the odds against being there. I don’t teach at a prestigious university; I went to a really good college, and a good graduate school, but I’m not from Harvard. Other people, um, are. And while I can’t and shouldn’t generalize about Harvardians, I’d hazard a guess that there’s a class element there—its own website notes only 16% of students have Pell grants, and 20% have family incomes of less than $65,000. Many Harvard grads, particularly from their grad programs, go on to teach at R1 institutions—that is, universities that focus on faculty research more than faculty teaching. While I would much rather teach 3 to 4 classes a term than write frequent books, those R1 universities (1-2 classes per term) tend to pay faculty far more than small universities like my own. Thus there’s class stratification among even full time academics—and this doesn’t get us started on the problem of contingent labor.

In any case, I was at this conference, chatting with some very nice Harvardians, when I complimented one of them on her glasses. “Thanks!” she said, “I like yours, too.” And we got talking about the challenge and cost of finding interesting frames I said, “Yeah, I couldn’t justify spending the $400+ on new frames for fashion reasons, so I just got these on Zenni optical for a song.” She replied, “Because of my ethics, I don’t shop there.”

Oh. Well.

The conversation pretty much stopped cold and I stood there feeling like a poor at a rich people’s party. Perhaps she didn’t realize that by implication, she suggested I didn’t have ethics, or that leaving hers unsaid put me in a super awkward position of stammering that glasses were expensive, dammit. Maybe she thought they were made with child labor, whereas I didn’t; maybe she was all about supporting a local economy. We’ll never know. I got another glass of wine and ran off to get snacks in my awkwardness.

The whole situation was further uncomfortable because it was a conversation among women. Women are notoriously underpaid in academia; those who are full time tend to be chastised for having kids whereas men are complimented, as having kids has implications for the “tenure clock.” Both of these issues have serious financial and class implications we should be working to eradicate through understanding and respecting each other, rather than, however unintentionally, undercutting each other.

I am a firm believer in shopping your ethics when you can…

but I am also keenly aware that my class position and geographic location allows me to do so. It’s also an exchange—I’ll spend more on things that are ethically satisfying to me, but consequently spend less on other things, like fancy new specs. For example, I do not set foot in Walmart. I find what Walmart has done to small towns (I lived in one and watched this happen) in terms of decimating small shops on main street, and then paying people so little that they can only afford to shop at Walmart, is terrible. I avoid it whenever possible. But I live in a suburb with lots of options; I have the disposable income to make other choices.

Similarly, I try not to buy factory-farmed meat. I strongly disagree with our current agricultural system and what it does to animals; I have a local Whole Foods, so I buy most of our meat there or from the organic department at Costco. I can do so because of my privileged class and geographic position. It’s the same reason I can support our local hardware or paint stores rather than Home Depot whenever possible.

I do, however, still buy my clothes at Old Navy. I buy my glasses online. I’m not a purist, and I realize there are ethical implications to these choices. But I am also hardly so wealthy or, frankly, so motivated that all of our purchases can be sustainably, ethically sourced. I think it’s important to support your values when you can (hello, recycled printer paper!) but it takes a certain kind of gall to speak of those ethics as though they are a given for all, or as though they do not come with enabling or limiting conditions. I might, for example, seek to support women business owners in my neighborhood, but am also aware that I can’t and shouldn’t keep visiting the home décor shops on that principle alone. Or the bakery. Good god, those cakes are delicious.

How do you feel about these issues?

Do you shop your ethics, and do you find your ability to do so both enabled and limited by your situation(s)? How do you navigate social class in your world?

 

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Considering our Relationships with Stuff

finance friday: talking about stuffLast week we talked about our relationships with money, looking at their origins and considering how they play out in how we handle, save, and spend. This week, we’ll take the next logical step: let’s talk about our relationships with stuff.

It seemed no coincidence to me that the pre-recession era, marked with the growth of McMansion subdivisions and the rise—as well as the fall—of the Hummer also seemed to feature the growth of storage centers. Now I’ve never fact-checked this, but I don’t remember seeing more than the occasional, isolated storage center when I was a kid. But in my early adult years, these places seemed to multiply like rabbits and take on gargantuan proportions. They’re eyesores, and always led me to thinking: what has caused such a demand for these? The answer: stuff.

I myself have a mixed relationship with stuff.

I have, if I’m honest, a real love for Sephora. We are book keepers. I wax and wane in terms of clothing purchases. We have a mess of a basement full of god knows what.

I’m working on thinning out this mess, putting stuff in the garbage bin and in a yard sale pile. If I can make a few bucks and clean out the basement, I’ll be a happy camper.

Some folks fill their emotional needs with things.

Others feel caught up in the race to have the newest-best-fastest car, phone, you name it. Mercifully, I am not one of those people. I’m not a must-have-this-tech person; I have a bare-bones phone (I’ve only had a smartphone for about a year, and had a flip phone until then), an older-model iPad I got through work, and a work laptop. I reason that these things do what I need them to do, and so I’m generally pretty happy with them and certainly unwilling to spend more money to upgrade them. I tend to fill my emotional needs with chocolate rather than iPhones.

For a long time I was easily lured in by those “here’s $10 off $25” coupon deals to places like DSW. One day I bought a pair of shoes accordingly and brought them home to find I already had a pair just like it. That’s when I began to really reconsider the shopping choices I was making, and the reasons I was making them, and why I made them when I had little disposable income to make them in the first place, nevermind when my economic position improved. (I also wonder about the gender and sex breakdown of all of this, tho I haven’t done the research, in terms of who gets what kind of advertising and who then takes advantage of it.)

Since then, I’ve tried to save more money and spend what I do on experiences.

Eating out is still a money pit for me, but I’m working on it. I still feel that as long as I’m enjoying the experience of dining out, it counts for more than a pair of shoes I don’t need.

So here’s today’s question: why do you buy what you choose to buy? Do you buy just for fun? To satisfy emotional longings? To meet concrete needs? To take advantage of deals when they present themselves? How might these categories overlap? Do you spend money you don’t have in order to meet any of these categories? What’s the opportunity cost* in such spending, whether you’ve got the income or not? How might all of these questions revolve around sex and gender?

Down the road we’ll prod these questions further as we start to map out better uses of your cash than stuff, or figuring out your cash-stuff balance.

*a fun economics term that refers to the other things you might have done with the money (or time, or whatever) spent.

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“Retail Therapy”

Even though Hulu frontloaded 3 episodes of Handmaid’s Tale, I’m going to put off chatting about them to get started on another, recurring segment: Finance Fridays! Let’s talk about money.

By way of introduction to this segment, let’s talk about “retail therapy.”

Y’all know what that is, and I suspect most of you have done it at one point or another. Akin to “eating your feelings” (my preferred default for days when I’m frustrated—hello, m&ms), “retail therapy” is when we take to the mall to deal with our anger, frustration, a long week, a bad meeting, a rough paper, you name it. We buy ourselves a few things to ease that pain, and then many of us feel a different pain when the credit card bill comes in. Sound familiar?

“Retail therapy” is a phrase I’ve primarily heard women use, and this makes sense: we live in a culture in which women do a great deal of the shopping and have for decades. We also live in a culture in which we celebrate shopping as a women’s activity. Dealing with our feelings by spending money is, by logical extension, a feminized activity. Shopping aimlessly is a routine choice for women’s outings together–it’s also a cultural norm. As an aside, when I took students to a new state—a new city—for a conference recently, the first night they wanted to go to the mall. They were both broke. This shit is pervasive.

shopping lady, money
I mean, just look at this ridiculous stock photo.

Longer-term Repercussions

The consequence of this feminization of shopping—combined with other issues, like the pay gap, the generally lower pay in feminized industries in which women predominantly work, and women’s periodic departure from the work force in order to give birth, all despite their higher numbers in colleges and universities—is that women carry far more consumer debt than men. US News reported in 2015 that,

“63 percent of women ages 18 to 24 carried some credit card debt, but only 36 percent of men in that age category had any debt. Similarly, 66 percent of women ages 55 to 64 carried credit card debt, but only 33 percent of men in that age bracket had credit card debt.” (Abby Hayes, 6.25.15, http://bit.ly/1JoZLok)

Consumer debt is arguably far worse than other kinds, as the interest rates are much higher, meaning that what you owe increases dramatically over time. Needing to pay that debt off, particularly when combined with other bills such as student loans and the like, yields another troublesome picture. According to a 2014 Forbes article,

“A new LearnVest.com survey found that an American woman’s retirement nest egg totals approximately $150,000, on average, while a man’s comes in at roughly $235,000. That’s a 57% difference!” (Jane Bianchi, 2.12.14, http://bit.ly/2qen0k7)

All of this is gendered; make no mistake. We’ll come back to these various categories in the weeks to come, but for now, try to keep yourself out of the shops this weekend. The weather in much of the country is gorgeous this time of year, so get outside with your friends rather than head to the mall. I’ll leave the m&ms alone, too.

Next week, we’ll discuss budgeting: knowing where your cash is going so as to better give it direction.

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